Craig Murphy: author, blogger, community evangelist, developer, speaker

The Social Programmer

January 2nd, 2013 at 2:23 am

Free stuff: If it sounds too good to be true…

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People like free stuff. I do. You do. We all do. We go to conferences, we get free stuff. Sometimes we get high-value free stuff, sometimes it’s just cheap or useless free stuff. Either way, we strive to get our hands on it. It’s human nature to want something for nothing. Human nature can be meddled with. It can be coerced into playing a game. Make the offer of free stuff so good and people will part with personal information in the vain hope they receiving something for nothing. And make it the current “must have” or “in demand” gadget and you’re on to a surefire winner.

As an aside
I recall a time around 20 or so years ago. I was in a customer service position and I was about to tell a bunch of customers that the dinner they were expecting was going to be delayed. Knowing that I would receive “some grief” if I just told them their food was going to be another half an hour, so I figured out a different angle. I approached the table and announced “I have good news and bad news. The good news is…I have a free round of drinks for you…” – pause for effect – “…and the bad news is there’s a 30 minute delay on your food”. By offering free stuff first, I was able to make the bad news more palatable [sorry!] and in this instance, raise a little laugh. People like free stuff and they’ll put up with quite a bit if the free stuff is worth having.

Free stuff, just follow and retweet
Just before Christmas 2012 I spotted @wp_discovery appear on Twitter. Officially it joined Twitter on the 7th of December 2012. It went through a couple of name changes before settling on @wp_discovery, but that’s neither here nor there. They also muddled their location from Finland to the UK – a vague attempt to gather some authenticity I imagine.

I added them to a list in order to keep an eye on the tweets. It was a competition-style tweet stream, simply follow and retweet to be in with a chance of winning either Nokia Lumia devices or Microsoft Surface units. In the words of The Real Hustle: “if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is”. That was my first thought and was the reason I chose not to follow them or retweet their material. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it appears my cold pricklies were correct.

What has been written so far?
I don’t plan to discuss the full story behind @wp_discovery, other bloggers have done excellent work in that space so there’s little point in repeating that information here.

Gary has done a great job keeping a log of the goings on relating to @wp_discovery’s actions.

Alvin has also written a great article: Editorial Lies Damned Lies and the Promise of Free Gadgets.

John has written a good straight to the point piece: Raising Awareness: The Great @wp_discovery Giveaway

Stop Malvertising have also written an excellent piece: http://stopmalvertising.com/spam-scams/warning-the-great-wp_discovery-giveaway.html

In a nutshell
There’s not a shred of evidence that anybody who follows and retweets the @wp_discovery account has actually won anything.

The @wp_discovery account had been asked to provide lists of winners but has so far been citing “privacy” as the reason for not issuing said list.

Photographs tweeted from the @wp_discover account have also been seen used elsewhere – @wp_discovery claim they are listing the devices on eBay and that they can use the photos as they see fit.

They also latched on to a Windows Phone game and tried to use that to promote their Twitter feed.

Questions were asked about where the devices came from, answers were given…they were journalists and had lots of review kit to give away. A few folks hinted that review kit was on loan and rarely could be considered a gift. However, the following public didn’t really care, they wanted their chance to blag a free Nokia Lumia or a Microsoft Surface or a Microsoft Xbox+Kinect: people were blinded by the fact they had a chance to win nearly $1000 worth of prize.

This carried on for a few days…until it became clear that there were no prize winners and the draw mechanism was “time based”…entrants stood no chance.

A Different Angle
However, I do want to think about what has happened here from a slightly different angle.

  • The @wp_discovery account amassed a decent number of followers very quickly. In around ten days they gathered about 10,000 followers. Twitter should have noticed that and raised an alarm bell.
  • Once the account was noted as being a fake, initially on the 26th of December, but more so on the 29th, they lost a few hundred followers. Despite frequent retweets of warning messages, folks continued to follow them. That said, as of today 1st January 2013, the follower count has started to dip again. However their material is still be retweeted by many new followers. This leads me to believe that there’s a reasonable amount of “follower loss” vs “follower gain” – at the moment the losses are marginally more than the gains. Twitter should have noticed this pattern and a red flag should have been raised.
  • Many hundreds of the disgruntled followers and since unfollowed the @wp_discovery account, “reported as spam” and blocked it. Twitter should have noticed this and raised an alarm bell.
  • The @wp_discovery account has actively blocked any user who openly questioned their approach. Twitter should have noticed this and raised an alarm bell.

Looking at Twitter’s Rules, under Spam, there are a number of clauses that @wp_discovery may have fallen foul of:

  1. If a large number of people are blocking you; I would expect a large number of users blocked @wp_discovery; it would be interesting to understand Twitter’s definition of a large number though.
  2. The number of spam complaints that have been filed against you; Ditto for spam complaints
  3. If you post duplicate content over multiple accounts or multiple duplicate updates on one account; there were significant duplicate updates which should have caught Twitter’s attention.
  4. If you have attempted to “sell” followers, particularly through tactics considered aggressive following or follower churn;
  5. Using or promoting third-party sites that claim to get you more followers (such as follower trains, sites promising “more followers fast,” or any other site that offers to automatically add followers to your account); a third party Windows Phone alias was used to attract followers and drive traffic to the third party’s Windows Phone game.
  6. If you create false or misleading Points of Interest; @wp_discovery created a flurry of retweets around the notion that there were high-value prizes up for grabs

Looking at the “Content Boundaries and Use of Twitter”, it is possible that some of these boundaries have been breached too.

  • Impersonation: At one stage, their Twitter profile suggested they may have some soft of affiliation with Nokia.
  • Privacy: They followed Jenna Kate Kelly for a period of about two minutes, they then sent Jenna lurid direct messages. They denied sending her these messages, despite a number of witnesses and screenshots proving it!
  • Violence and Threats: What could be interpreted as threatening tweets were issued from the @wp_discovery account.
  • Copyright: The Microsoft “Windows 8″ logo has been used as the @wp_discovery avatar. I know from personal experience that we, as app developers, are not permitted to use logos that are “too similar” to the Microsoft logo in Windows 8 apps that are submitted to the Windows Store.

And they clean up when a legal issue appears
As I was writing this, 1/1/13 at 22:15, I noticed @wp_discovery had begun to delete their tweets. They then posted a single tweet:

1

Which was then replaced with this one:

2

The bit.ly link leads to here: http://areon-development.de/?p=191. I’m not going repeat material that is already in Gary’s post on this matter. Suffice to say, @wp_discovery tried to use a Windows Phone game written by Areon Development in order to attract more followers. Areon Development clearly didn’t appreciate the association and pursued matters that led to @wp_discovery holding up their hands and walking away. That’s certainly the public statement that has been issued, I don’t think we’ll ever know the full ins and outs of it all.

What’s next?
Before they deleted their tweets, they did tweet this:

3

Now, I’m not suggesting that the @mplacetoday account is possibly their “next project”, but I would have to question why an account that was created on the 31st of December 2012 would warrant the attention of @wp_discovery? If somebody tells me otherwise, I’ll gladly remove this section from this blog post.

Moral of the story
It’s simple: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Any Twitter stream or web-site that offers Nokia Lumia 920 phones, Microsoft Surfaces, Xboxes and Kinects has to have some form of reputation. They should also have some terms and conditions governing how you may enter their competition and how they’ll go about effecting the draw. There will probably be issues relating to where they will ship the prize to (e.g. some countries may not be eligible). Importantly, there will be a publicity or privacy clause – most competitions will expect you to be publicly ecstatic about your win, but they will give you the option of privacy should you wish it. @wp_discover had none of these in place…apart from assuming all supposed winners wanted 100% privacy.

They duped thousands of followers into thinking they stood a chance of winning a high-value prize. They were claim to have 5 phones and 2 Surfaces in their draws. Even as the follower count increased, 5 chances out of 9,000 or 10,000 has fairly good odds. At one point, near the end of their flurry of activity last month, they were suggesting anybody who asked could have a phone, any phone, just ask! I know that some “you’re a winner” direct messages were sent out, however as Gary explained in his post, @wp_discovery weaseled out of shipping prizes using a variety of tricks.

The upshot of it all was this: no real winners, merely folks who thought they had won something – @wp_discovery, most likely, wanted you to provide them with more personal information than would normally be required in any prize draw anywhere in the world.

You can protect yourself from similar [Twitter] scams in the future by doing as much research as you can. Use tools to help you, here are a few suggestions:

  • Use http://www.whendidyoujointwitter.com/ to help you work out how long a Twitter user has been on Twitter. If they joined recently, you have reason to investigate further.
  • Do they link to a web-site in their Twitter bio? It’s very easy to create a Twitter account and “go”. Creating a full web-site with contact details, legalese, etc. is another matter all together.
  • Use Twitter Search to see what everybody else is saying about a Twitter user – if most of the @wp_discovery followers did this, they’d never have followed them in the first place.
  • Use Bing, Google or your favourite search engine – although the results will include more than just Twitter and may include sites that aggregate Twitter content making it hard to “see the wood for the trees”
  • Use linguistic analysis – look at the grammar usage, use of contractions (“it is” and “it’s”). If they link to third-party sites, compare the writing style. Consider small things like the orientation of smilies “:-)” vs “(-:”. There are lots of small clues to be found in careful analysis of the language constructs and word selections!
  • Use screenshots to help gather information. There are lots of [free] tools that can grab your screen automatically – these are great if you need to capture follows, unfollows or tweets that may have been deleted, etc. I’ve used TimeSnapper in the past – there’s a free version available.

There are plenty of other tools that you can use, feel free to share any that you find useful in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

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